´salKyle does not want to leave his home behind, but he has no choice. He is assigned to a remote scientific outpost on the planet Tantalus where he meets Jim, the xenobiologist in charge of researching the indigenous species. Almost as soon as he arrives, though, strange things start happening. Things that could compromise Kyle's future, or even his life...
I slept well over twelve hours, but I still ended up waking up before 07:00. At first I looked at the little alarm clock by the bed in confusion. Had I overslept? I rubbed the stubble on my chin absentmindedly, blinking a couple of times. Then my brain kicked back into gear and I remembered that the days on Tantalus were a bit over thirty-seven hours long. In fact, as I made my groggy way to the bathroom, I could see the first hints of dawn through the windows. It was good; at least for today my biological clock would not be knocked out of whack. I had no idea how I would adapt to the super-long days in the long run, but if other people had managed then so would I. Hopefully.
There was no hot water in the shower. And there was a timer. I got exactly five minutes of freezing spray, half of which I wasted waiting for the water to warm up. By the time the water ran out I still had shampoo in my hair, which I had to towel off as best I could. Shivering, I stepped out of the shower only to remember that I had left all my clean clothes back in my room, and so I had to walk barefoot the entire way back as fast as I could. I tripped over the towel I was holding around my waist once and I fell, harder than expected because of the stupid gravity. I made it to my room, but I was already in a bad mood.
I got lost trying to find the kitchen. The compound, which I found from a sign was creatively named Tantalus-V, wasn't enormous. Nevertheless, the crisscrossing corridors, hatches and ladders seemed to have been designed to be as confusing as possible. When I finally made it to the kitchen, it was only to discover that the fridge was stuffed with bland things like oatmeal, protein powder and frozen vegetables. Not a cookie in sight. I ended up making myself some oatmeal, which tasted horrible because I couldn't figure out how to get warm water to come out of the faucet. I was hungry, though, so I ate it anyway. By the time I was done it was 6:15. Remembering Jim’s lecture from the day before, I hurried over to the topmost level where I guessed the observation deck would be.
I made it there quickly, climbing through yet another ladder up to what had to be the biggest room in the entire compound. It was a huge circular space with a few work consoles and other mysterious furniture, but the roof was a dome. It was transparent, flawless, and at first I thought the place was open to the elements. I approached the edge of the dome, craning my neck to see everywhere, and in spite of my grumpy mood I found myself admiring the beauty of Tantalus.
Huge swirling banks of clouds drifted lazily above me, snowy-white and pristine. The sky overhead was just beginning to light up with the coming morning, and the deep maroon was becoming lighter orange even as I watched. Off to the left, threatening black clouds crackled with yellow lightning. I followed their progress for a little while: they were being blown away from us by the violent winds that I knew dominated the upper atmosphere of the planet. I looked all around until I found the rising sun, and it was then that it finally dawned on me. I was in another world.
The sun in the sky of Tantalus was smaller than the one I had grown up with. Its light seemed fainter, emphasizing the fact that it was very far away. The ever-changing clouds obscured it again and again, but even when it was fully hidden there was still a kind of diffuse, warm-colored light pervading the atmosphere that couldn’t be coming from the star. It puzzled me for a while, but then a particularly thick bank of clouds overhead parted.
I saw Argos.
It filled half the sky. It was so big that the faint curvature of its leading edge was barely noticeable. Instead it seemed as if half of the heavens were an even, faint reddish tone of atmospheric clouds, while the other half was a swirling mass of orange from the far-off gas giant. Argos’s reflected light supplemented the light from the sun and it was this that made daytime on Tantalus look as bright as Cora’s. It was breathtaking. I had never felt so small in my life.
I looked at my watch: 6:24.
When I could finally turn my gaze away from the sky, I looked down to the surface. Most of it was obscured by fog, a lesser cousin of the thick clouds overhead, but the few patches I could see looked strange. I could not decide if the surface was rocky or overgrown with jungle. It was dark green in many places, with a few jutting edges of rust-colored rock. This compound had been built in a valley, or so I had read, but aside from a few far-off mountain peaks there wasn't much of the surface to really see. For that you would have to go outside. Which I was dying to do. Exploring a new world… Seeing what hid beneath the fog…
I found myself staring at a particular patch of mossy green. It was maybe one hundred meters away, walking distance really.
I looked at my watch again. 6:27. Almost half an hour before I had to meet Jim. Plenty of time to go out for a quick peek out there and come back.
But what if Jim caught me?
Then again, he'd been a prick yesterday. And he was going to kick me out anyway, have me reassigned.
My gaze was drawn to that little mossy patch again. Yeah. If I went real quick… How many times in life do you get the chance to walk on another planet?
Something moved in that patch of ground. Something small and dark.
I looked quickly around: no Jim. That decided it. I made my way down.
I was getting the hang of navigating through Tantalus-V now and I reached the ground level without a problem. There was a security hatch blocking the way to the decontamination chamber, but it opened automatically when I punched the access button. Jim probably had no need for security lockdowns since he was alone all the time.
The decontamination chamber led to a second hatch, which was closed. There were small backpacks hanging on a wall nearby: oxygen masks for brief excursions outside. I debated briefly on whether to take one, but if I did Jim would see that the equipment had been used and there would be no way to deny it. If I just went out and back again before the atmosphere messed me up, I should be fine.
I saw the small dark thing in my mind again. I couldn’t wait to find out what it was.
I walked up to the second hatch and started the decontamination procedure. A full minute later, a light turned green.
I hit the exit button and stepped out into an alien world.
The heat blasted me in the face. It was sweltering outside; heat-wave level, the kind where you can't wait to find a place with air conditioning. I took my first tentative steps out and heard the hatch shut behind me. The air smelled weird. I inhaled a deep lungful and exhaled it slowly. It felt like I'd only taken half a breath.
Time to move. Tantalus’s atmosphere had a higher concentration of CO2 than Cora, and the nitrogen percentage was slightly screwed up. It was the reason why the place was so hot despite being so far away from its sun, but it also made it useless for humans. It was breathable, but only for a little while. I’d read that most people would faint from oxygen deprivation after ten minutes outside. Less, if you were doing anything that required physical effort.
That was okay, though. I focused on taking more deep breaths as I made my way to the mossy spot I'd seen from above. It wasn't far; I calculated a couple minutes to get there, a couple more to sightsee and then head on back.
I started to sweat. A lot. Down here the fog seemed less substantial, but I could only see about three or four meters ahead of me. I started breathing harder the more I walked, and I discovered that I was stepping on some sort of soft spongy mass that covered the ground like a carpet. In some places there were rocks jutting out from it, rusty with the color of iron oxide, but for the most part the spongy stuff was everywhere. I even bent down to touch it: it felt feathery, and moist. I worried briefly about weird alien infections from unprotected exposure, but I’d read the toxicology, bacteriology and virology reports. Tantalus wasn’t deadly to humans.
I was panting when I reached the clearing. The wind blew harder through here, hot and humid, but it also helped clear the fog somewhat. I looked around for the source of the movement I had seen from above, scanning everywhere with my eyes. All I saw was more rocks, the moss, and here and there some tall plantlike things that looked thick enough to be trees.
"Hello?" I said aloud. My voice sounded weird. And faint. It was like trying to yell after sprinting for a mile. There wasn't much power behind it.
I waited until my watch said I'd been outside for four minutes. Nothing. I was slightly disappointed, but it was time to head back.
I turned around and only then did it occur to me that I might get lost in all this fog. I could not see the compound from here, but I had a fairly good idea of the way I'd come. I began to retrace my steps, and after a minute had passed I was starting to really struggle for breath. As I hurried along, my footsteps silent on the moss, I felt the first stab of real fear. Jim didn't know I was out here. And it was impossible to see anything this damn fog. If I got lost, or didn't make it back in time…
I began to panic and walked even faster, despite the warning in my brain that told me that heavier exertion was a really bad idea. The increased gravity started weighing down on me a lot more. I passed a couple of rocks that I thought I recognized from before, rushing now, and I looked everywhere for a sign of the compound. There was only fog, the faint outlines of things that drifted off when I passed them, and the stifling wind.
My breath was coming in gasps now, the kind you get when you try to hold your breath for a really long time and then you have to gulp in air to make up for it. My heart was hammering in my chest. Why hadn't I taken one of the oxygen masks? Why—
Something moved. Just off to my right. I stopped out of instinct, sweat dripping from my brow.
What was I doing? I needed to get back inside now.
I took a step away.
Then I felt the pull.
It was a stronger version of the faint suggestion I'd experienced on the observation deck. Something moved off to the right, half hidden by the fog, and I felt it pulling my attention towards it. I looked; I couldn't help it. I felt a hint of… A blur. A fragmented image in my mind.
I heard something that could have been a low growl. The fog thinned out with a gust of wind and I saw part of something small standing half-hidden behind a boulder. It was about as big as a cat but much lower to the ground. I had a glimpse of fur. Too many eyes.
I gasped, snapping back to the fact that I was suffocating, shocked that I would have wasted precious seconds like that. I tore my gaze away from the alien with an effort of will.
I turned around and saw, to my great relief, the bulk of the metal compound towering a few meters ahead. I stumbled forward, wiping sweat from my eyes, and I crashed against the hatch on the outside. I punched the entry button.
It didn't open.
I punched it again; nothing. When I punched it a third time a message appeared on the small panel above it.
Unauthorized entry request detected.
I choked on an empty mouthful of air. Of course. Jim hadn't programmed the egress computer to recognize two occupants yet. It probably registered Jim still inside, and I was unaccounted for…
My vision began to black out at the edges. I punched the button again, desperately, but the motion had no strength behind it.
"Jim!" I shouted. It barely came out as a croak.
I sank to my knees. I felt the blood rush to my head and I fell over on my side, dizzy.
I was going to die out here.
I tried to lift my arm. I couldn’t.
Something small and furry was coming towards me, very fast. I caught a glimpse of wicked claws shredding the moss inches from my face before I blacked out.